The Senate education committee voted 16 to 6 in favor of confirming John King Jr. as U.S. Education Secretary on Wednesday, cementing education as a rare area of bipartisan compromise in an otherwise deeply divided Congress.
President Obama formally nominated King last month, saying at the time that “there is nobody better to continue leading our ongoing efforts to work toward preschool for all, prepare our kids so that they are ready for college and career, and make college more affordable.”
Obama also highlighted King’s powerful personal story: Orphaned at 12, King has often said his Brooklyn public school teachers saved his life, giving him not only an excellent education but also a sense of hope for his future.
King’s nomination came as something of a surprise, as it had seemed that he would continue as acting secretary for the final months of the Obama administration, allowing the president to forgo what might have been a difficult confirmation battle in the GOP-led Congress.
But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, had urged Obama to go through the formal nomination process, arguing that the Senate needed to confirm the secretary to ensure accountability as the nation’s public schools implement a new federal education law. Alexander voted in favor of King’s confirmation.
“I don’t agree with all of Dr. King’s views,” Alexander said. “But the president did what I urged him to do. I promised we would have a prompt and fair consideration. We’ve done that. I’m going to vote to move his confirmation to the floor and hope the Senate confirms him promptly.”
The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), also voted in favor of King’s confirmation, saying he has “demonstrated a longstanding commitment to fighting for kids.”
Alexander and Murray led the bipartisan effort to write a new federal education law to replace No Child Left Behind. Congress passed that sweeping law last year and President Obama signed it in December, shifting much of the authority over public schools from the federal government to states and local school districts.
King pledged to uphold the spirit of that shift to local control during his confirmation hearing last month. But he also emphasized that the federal government will continue to have an important role in making sure that states and school districts are adequately serving all children, especially those who are disadvantaged.
Several Republican senators voted against King’s confirmation, including Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) voted in favor of passing King’s confirmation out of committee, but she said she will not vote aye on the floor unless he provides more “direct answers” about how he intends to overhaul the department’s efforts to protect student loan borrowers from what Warren called “fraudulent colleges” and “shady institutions.”
“I believe he’s smart and capable but I still have questions about how he plans to change the culture at the department,” Warren said.
In New York, King became known as one of the most polarizing figures in education, clashing frequently with parents and teachers over his efforts to introduce new policies — including new teacher evaluations and new Common Core standards and tests — that the Obama administration was pushing nationwide. Calling those policies “ineffective and destructive,” dozens of activists and writers — including Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Diane Ravitch and Jonathan Kozol — wrote a letter urging Congress to reject King’s nomination.
Since taking the helm of the U.S. Education Department in January, King has extended something of an olive branch to critics, speaking often of the need to reduce redundant and poor-quality tests and apologizing for the federal government’s contribution toward creating an environment in which teachers feel “attacked and unfairly blamed.”